Understanding and overcoming teen trauma from school closures

As everyone heads back to school, each student is taking a different experience of lockdown and school closures with them. For some, this will have been a very happy period, spending quality time with family away from the over-stimulation of school. For others, it will have been very stressful and traumatic.

In this interview Lisa Cherry highlights:

  • The spectrum of experiences that students might have been through over this time
  • How the stress and trauma that might have resulted from these experiences might present themselves
  • How we can be empathetic to everyone in our community and support them as we return to school

Listen to the interview using the podcast player above, or read the synopsis below. If you're an Apple podcast user, please click here to subscribe and never miss an episode.

What Lisa Cherry does and how she came to be doing it

For the last ten years Lisa has worked in education as a trainer and speaker supporting teachers and schools to have a deeper understanding around attachment, adversity and trauma and the impact of these three things on their students. This helps teachers and schools to have a better understanding of challenging behaviours in their students, where those behaviours are coming from and that those behaviours are communicating something that we need to have a look at.

Lisa spent ten years in social work, then ten years working predominantly with young people in care and leaving care. Then she spent ten years working in education, again, predominantly working with students who were not attending school to at risk of school exclusion. She's very passionate about reducing school exclusions.

What is meant by attachment, adversity and trauma?

  • Attachment is that ‘normal' parent / child relationships which can develop within weeks and months of birth. It's a relationship where children feel safe and know that if they're naughty they'll be forgiven and continue to be loved.
  • Adversity is a set back in your life that has been difficult to cope with. This could range from a bereavement to living in poverty, or include physical abuse, neglect or sexual abuse. But, living through the coronavirus pandemic is also a form of adversity.
  • Trauma is a form of extreme stress that has overwhelmed the mind and body system and no one has been able to soothe that experience and resolve it for you, leaving long-term stress in your system. Trauma is much easier to overcome if you've got secure attachments and relationships as they give you the resilience to overcome adversity.

The kinds of trauma that students may have experienced during the lockdown and school closures

There is a really wide spectrum of stress and trauma that young people might have experienced as a result of the lockdown and school closures. There are lots of people who don't have experience of overcoming adversity, who will have had a very adverse experience during this time.

For example,  people may be experiencing concerns around finances so they children may be in an environment where they're starting to hear about money concerns.

Living with uncertainty alone is difficult – and we're all living in uncertainty times with the virus, not knowing what's going to happen next.

Some of the children in the classroom are going to have had a lovely time, they're going to have had more of their parents and greater stability. Other students, who find school difficult, will have found the lockdown to be a massive relief.

Other students will have had a horrific time, because school is their only safe place and the only place where they are fed. They may have been around domestic violence, or a foster placement or adoptive placement may have broken down.

Teenagers may also have found the separation from their peers very difficult as teens usually ‘hunt in packs' and it's a crucial time in their lives when the separate from their parents – which they haven't been able to do.

There is also the worry about the virus – they may constantly be worrying that they might contract the virus and give it to members of their family.

The signs that your child might be experiencing trauma as a result of the lockdown and school closures

It's very difficult for young people to articulate what's upsetting them and they've very unlikely to ask to sit down with you for a cup of tea and explain what's up.

If you look at this through a stress response lens – fight, flight or freeze – you're most likely to see either the fight or flight response.

The flight response will display as a withdrawal e.g. getting lost in gaming or living a much more online world. I don't think this is particularly an issue so long as safeguarding protections are in place.

The fight response will manifest itself as what we might think of as ‘poor' behaviour which is challenging if it's not handled well by the parents or the school.

What can parents and teachers do to support children displaying signs of trauma and the stress response?

The most important thing is to create a safe space for students both at home and at school. This means an physically and emotionally safe space – where they don't feel at risk of catching the virus but also a space where they are accepted as a whole person, with all their raw and difficult emotions and the behaviour they entail. It's really all about creating safe relationships with children.

Being compassionate towards students who've experienced more trauma that your own children

There will be children in schools who have had very difficult lockdown experiences and will exhibit very challenging behaviour once they get back to the classroom.

It's important to remember that these children are parts of our communities and we have to look after them and care for them to improve their long-term trajectories. Many students who are excluded from school end up in prison or involved in organised crime – so for the sake of our whole community and society, we need to be compassionate towards them.

If parents are concerned about behaviour in their children's school they should ask the school about their relational policy, not their behavioural policy, as this is the key to resolving challenging behaviour in students.

Where to find out more about Lisa

Twitter – @_LisaCherry


Lisa's website 

Lisa's podcast is called Trauma, Resonance, Resilience

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